How Malthus Got It Wrong (David R. Henderson, 1/11/24, Defining Ideas)

Simon, in his book The Ultimate Resource, posited that it was precisely the growth in population that had led to the increased supply of resources. How so? Because, argued Simon, with more people, there were more minds, and with more minds, there were more minds solving problems. That’s what led to his book’s title. People, he argued, were the ultimate scarce resource.

In “Natural Resources,” published in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Princeton University economists Sue Anne Batey Blackman and William J. Baumol lay out three ways in which “the effective stocks of a natural resource can be increased.” First, a technological innovation can reduce the amount of waste. They give the example of reducing the amount of iron ore lost in mining or smelting. They also note that improvements in technology can help force more oil out of wells that have been abandoned. Second, they write, there is some substitutability over a wide range of resources. They give the example of insulation, which allowed homeowners and tenants to use less oil. This doesn’t mean that oil became more plentiful, of course. But it does mean that the available supply of oil was stretched so that the awful thing people feared—running out of oil—didn’t happen. The final way they note of increasing resources is to recycle. While some products really should not be recycled because the resource costs of doing so exceed the savings, other resources, like aluminum, can be profitably recycled.

In their article, Blackman and Baumol give some striking data on five minerals: tin, copper, iron ore, lead, and zinc. They show world reserves in 1950, world production between 1950 and 2000, and reserves in 2000. If we were running out of those resources, all of the reserves should have been smaller in 2000 than in 1950. In fact, all were larger. The case of iron ore is the most striking. In 1950, there were 19 billion metric tons. Between 1950 and 2000, 37.6 billion metric tons of iron ore were produced, which was more than the number of tons to begin with. By 2000, world reserves were 140 billion metric tons, over seven times as many as in 1950!

Earlier similar data caused Julian Simon to conclude that the real constraint on resource availability was not resources but people.